Thursday, August 23, 2007

New Atheism as a Positive View

Ophelia Benson rebuts some silly complaints from Michael Shermer, including the bizarre suggestion that New Atheism is a mere "anti-movement", and ought to "champion science and reason." (!?)

This reminds me of the odd arguments from Macht and Chris that New Atheists are "contradicting themselves" by arguing for a positive worldview/culture/values that they allegedly deny is a worldview/etc. But again, most New Atheists are quite self-conscious promoters of what they see as Enlightenment culture, values of rational inquiry, and so forth. So it's very odd to see people suggesting the opposite.

Now, it's very obvious that New Atheism is a positive view, so I don't think Shermer has any excuse whatsoever. But for the others - denying that New Atheists believe theirs is a positive view - I think their confusion arises from misinterpreting the rhetoric of normality. New Atheists like to suggest that "atheism is the default view", for example. Chris interpreted this as a descriptive claim, refuted by the cultural contingency of Enlightenment values. But of course that isn't what's meant at all. It's a normative claim -- basically an affirmation of Occam's Razor -- not the sort of thing that can be refuted by mere anthropology.

Similarly, Macht wrote:
A major theme of the new atheists is that as various cultures modernize, they inevitably get rid of out-dated traditions and religions. "Modernization" is like a chicken nugget factory, where whole chickens go in and all that comes out is the crisp, juicy nuggets - free of all the feathers, beaks, bones and innards (mostly). It doesn't matter what kind of chicken goes in - an old one, a young one, a fat one, a chicken with two heads, perhaps even a rat or two. What matters is that there is this factory and it can take in a wide variety of chicken and chicken-like things and strip them of all the unnecessary and hard to swallow parts.

But this conflates two claims:
(1) that reason is universal, i.e. all inquirers will ultimately converge as they become more rational ("modern"); and
(2) that this process is wholly negative, involving only subtraction.

New Atheists advance claim #1. But nobody believes the absurd #2. Rationality is not achieved via lobotomy. When we talk about "getting rid of irrationality", we do not mean this as a purely negative process. Part of what it is to dispel an illusion - in the fullest sense - is to develop your awareness of what's real. To overcome a bias, you replace it with a balanced perspective. Etc. So although New Atheists sometimes talk about their rational ideals as a kind of "baseline", they do not mean that it is our actual starting point, requiring no positive effort. Of course not. They mean it is a normative baseline, or basic standard, such that once we overcome all our mistakes we will be rationally compelled to end up there. The truth is sitting there waiting for us, there for the taking. That's not to say that we can just sit tight and have it fall into our lap.

In short: the chicken factory adds some crucial spices that would otherwise be missing. And that's precisely what we like about it.


  1. First, "modern" and "rational" aren't the same thing and I didn't suggest they were.

    Second, my argument is based on a view of modernity which Charles Taylor calls the acultural view of modernity. This is the view that as any culture modernizes, it inevitable erodes away tradition and religion and people will come to see the universal truths of science and reason. I think that Harris and Dawkins believe that atheism is one of the inevitable outcomes of this process of modernization. And I think I've given pretty good evidence (in the posts I linked to in my post) that they both hold to the acultural view of modernization.

    Now you and I know that modernization doesn't just involve an erosion of old beliefs to some "baseline," but I've seen nothing to suggest, as you say, that Harris and Dawkins also think this. Perhaps they do, but I wouldn't mind seeing where.

  2. Richard, if you see it as a normative view, that's wonderful. Unfortunately, fellow new atheists have explicitly claimed that it's an empirical, descriptive view. PZ Myers and many of his readers, for example, in discussions of the naturalness of religious belief. I think the descriptive view is also implied by Dawkins' child abuse argument, which implies, directly, that without religious education children will be atheists, and it is only because of this education that they are not. That's an empirical claim, and though false, can't be strictly normative.

  3. Chris, are you suggesting that if authority figures didn't tell children that a man named Jesus had magic powers 2,000 years ago, they would naturally come to that conclusion themselves, by analyzing the world around them?

    If you mean "education" as simply passing on information, then of course human beings are born without god-belief. For the same reason they're born without alphabet-belief or subtraction-belief.

  4. chris: Dawkins infamous "religion is child abuse" implies an empirical claim, but not THAT empirical claim, I don't think. I think it is merely the claim that if a person is indoctrinated in religion, then they are more likely to be religious, and believe in things like hell which Dawkins deems to be harmful, which seems sensible. Rationalism/Atheism/Secular humanism is not a default position, but neither is Roman Catholism or any other religion. The whole point of religious indoctrination is that it makes people more likely to believe that religion, and religious belief is one with a great amount of inertia. It's not that if people were not indoctrinated with religion they would magically become atheists, (except in the weak sense of atheism our-hidden-place means) but they would get their beliefs through other means, and thus have a better chance of being atheists.

    (Although I'm basing my understanding of Richard Dawkins' argument on Religion's Real Child Abuse, which makes the argument that religious indoctrination is bad because it makes people believe in unpleasant things like hell, not because it makes people not be atheists. But that doesn't mean that people might not make the sort of argument you describe. I'm not too familiar with PZ Meyer, so maybe he would have such an argument, although I doubt it.)

  5. our hidden, no, I'm not suggesting that.

    usergoogol, I'm going by the version of the argument Dawkins gave in a talk in which he compared religion to economic theories, with the implication that children are not born with any economic theory whatsoever. I could be misinterpreting his actual belief, though his discussion of the cognitive literature makes me more confident in my interpretation.

    With Myers and others, the argument for atheism as the default human belief state is more explicit. It's led them to argue vehemently against claims that religion is natural, i.e., it falls out directly and perhaps inevitably from our cognitive makeup.

  6. "It's led them to argue vehemently against claims that religion is natural"

    That's unfortunate, since the empirical issue is as much a pointless time-waster as the incessant debates over whether homosexuality is innate. It's just nothing at all to do with the normative question. (Maybe Myers and others really are that dumb, but if so their idiocy is not essential to the New Atheist view, and it's really the latter that I'm interested in assessing.)

  7. My knowledge of new atheism comes mostly from the more zealous atheist bloggers -- the bloggers who blog about their atheism and anti-religious views -- including Myers and his commenters (who visit any SB site that mentions religion), Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. Myers, Harris, and Dawkins are generally smart people, so I don't think it's an issue of intelligent. Instead, it seems to be an issue of ignorance. Specifically, Harris' ignorance of psychology, Dawkins' ignorance of philosophy, history, and theology, and Myers ignorance of, well, all of the above. It's hard to know what's relevant and what isn't if you don't really know what you're talking about, and they don't.

    Judging by your own comments on atheism and religion, I'm not sure I would classify you as a new atheist, though. Your atheism seems to be much more in line with the old free thinker/pre-positivism tradition than what I see as new atheism. It's skeptical atheism, but it's got a philosophical base that makes epistemology and ethics (in the philosophical sense) central, rather than anti-religious social commentary and an emphasis on science as the force behind the irrelevancy and (potential) eradication of religion. I could be wrong, but I have never thought of you being in the same category as a Dawkins. And as I'm sure you know, I consider that a good thing.

  8. Chris, that's an interesting suggestion. I've always understood "New Atheism" as basically just signifying vocal skeptical atheism (not that there's anything especially "new" about that). The other factors you mention seem rather less clear-cut, though I do think Dawkins et al are quite right to see empirical factors as central to the epistemic question. I also agree with them that religion is generally a force of unreason in society. (Appeals to revelation and traditional authority are as anti-philosophical as they are anti-scientific, after all.)

    Granted, I don't think that merely subtracting religion from society is sufficient (though as argued in the main post, I don't think anyone can charitably be interpreted as having that view). But I would be delighted to see religious culture universally superceded by enlightenment culture.

    With that clarified, then, do you still see some key difference between my position and Dawkins'? [And if not, does that lead you to think more of him or less of me? ;-)]

  9. "Granted, I don't think that merely subtracting religion from society is sufficient (though as argued in the main post, I don't think anyone can charitably be interpreted as having that view)."

    I actually think if we could sit down in a room with Dawkins and Harris and press them on the issue, they would concede that point. That is, if we explicitly asked them, they would probably agree. But almost all their rhetoric seems to suggest that they do hold to a view that is like the one I laid out in my post.

  10. Well, there are two ways to interpret rhetoric that focuses "negatively" on the problem to be overcome. The positive aspect of the rational process may be considered absent, or else simply implicit -- i.e. assumed as a normative 'given'. I think the latter interpretation makes more sense, and is standard practice for teleological representations. The positive part of the picture is considered to be part of 'normal' functioning. Only a rationally defective agent would remain at the stage of mere subtraction. (Of course, it's possible that humans are rationally defective in this sense, in which case it would be worth highlighting the positive aspect of the rational process more! Dawkins may be making a strategic error with his rhetorical focus. But I don't think he's guilty of the conceptual error you suggest.)

  11. Richard, I'm starting to wonder where the term "new atheists" originated, and who it was originally meant to include. I really don't know, and I'm not even sure who I picked the term up from.

    I do know that I've never used the term to refer to old-school free thinker atheists, though they are certainly more likely to associate themselves with new atheists than with atheists like me, at least in polite company. But I do think there are differences between what I would consider old skeptical atheists and new atheists, on the dimensions I mentioned above. Also, new atheists seem to be the intellectual descendants of Ayer more than Huxley (it's not uncommon to hear from them -- including Dawkins -- that "God" is a meaningless term, for example).

    I don't think their position is simply that getting rid of religion will automatically yield a rational, science-oriented society, but instead that getting rid of religion will open the door for such a society, with the heavy lifting then to be done by science and scientists.

  12. Chris,

    The term "new atheists" originated from a Wired article that came out around the time when Dawkins' book was coming out. I believe that is the first instance.


    "Only a rationally defective agent would remain at the stage of mere subtraction."

    That's basically what I've been saying. :) Seriously, though, it is not just a matter of them focusing on the problem to be overcome. It is the way they go about doing this. That's my problem! And it makes no sense to me that they would think that their position is a normative "given." How could anybody think that unless they thought their position was somehow the "default" position that everybody would inevitably hold to once society got rid of religion? Why would anybody think their own vision of the good is implicit? (Incidentally, this is pretty much what I was talking about over at Chris's blog when I brought up the analogy to the idea of the "state of nature.")

    I don't think Dawkins and Harris are making strategic errors. I think they know exactly what they are doing and are genius's in this regard. I just don't think there is a whole lot of substance behind their strategic genius. Framing their arguments in terms of them being rational and all religious people being irrational is a way better strategy than framing their arguments in terms of different competing normative visions.

  13. Rationality is not achieved via lobotomy.

    I agree that an embrace of rationality should not be seen as simply subtractive. Still, I think it's also clear that modernization (by which I mean the assimilation of liberal, secular, capitalist institutions and values) tends to homogenize otherwise diverse cultures and worldviews. This doesn't mean that we should encourage irrationality just to preserve local colour, of course. However, modernity does seem like a factory in the sense that it tends to uniformity. Even if a secular attitude is preferable to a religious one (and I think it is), isn't it clear that we would lose something of value if everyone were suddenly atheist?

  14. As I understand it, the atheism of Dawkins isn't a positive thing, in the descriptive sense. Atheism has always been the belief that theism is false (or something very near that with a small dose of nuance--i.e. "theism is no more likely to be true than any number of other off-the-wall claims"). To try to make it something other than that is to set up a hundred straw-man attacks.

  15. This seems straightforward enough:
    Atheism, according to the argument given is a default position --for sufficiently rational cultures. The "rationalization," used here in the sense of becoming logical, scientific, in explanation of culture seems to be unnecessarily (logically, not historically) tied to modernization, which may be causing some confusion. In fact, given a rational basis for examination of the world, atheism does indeed seem to be a reasonable default position--it takes work to get to god from science (if that is what is wanted), it is comparatively simple to never consider the question of deity, given reason, science and a lack of exposure to religion. On the other hand, I've long suspected that religious impulses are indeed worth examining anthropologically, that they arise from vestigial primate "wiring" that tends toward very specific forms of hierarchy.
    Defining Atheism as primarly negative misses (or maybe skews?) the point very badly, though. If there is no god, and no rational basis to assume one, then there is nothing to remove or oppose. To the extent that atheism appears oppositional it does so reactively, and not esentially, in the face of religious assertions. All of my life til now I have ignored, not realized, never imagined, nor considered, the existence or meaning of a wombacorn (a wombat with a single horn). This seems to me not to imply that all of my life up til the invention of the wombacorn was an essentially negative series of proposition to be viewed in the light of my denial of wombacornedness. It was in fact far more reasonable, and normal of me to never mention the non-existant wombacorn that it would be to deny it. The argument about atheism becomes confused by people who cannot image that there isn't and wasn't a deity, and thereby construe the atheists position as one of "denying" a deity that relly exists. Replace deity with wombacorn and the whole thing looks obvious to the point of silliness.

  16. Hi Chris,

    The works of art that you link to are, of course, great works of art. I don't think any "New Atheist" would disagree.

    However, to say that getting rid of religion would lead to losing those works of art is a non sequitir, I think. If everyone "converted" to atheism, we would still have those works of art. No one that I know of is advocating destroying all religious art.

    If, on the other hand, you mean that if atheism had been predominant throughout history we would not have those works of art, I think you are making a trivial statement. If history had been different in any way, we would likely not have those works of art. There is no reason that I know of, though, that atheists couldn't still create great works of art.

  17. Except that whether it's a non sequitur or not is an empirical question, one that I think we have pretty good evidence in favor of it not being a non sequitur.

    Plus, I'm making a point less about religion than I am about replacing religion with cold, rational, scientific reason.

  18. Plus, I'm making a point less about religion than I am about replacing religion with cold, rational, scientific reason.

    Do you think the new atheists want to get rid of everything other than science? You know, art, culture, friendship, family, sports, travel, all the 'warm' stuff? Because I thought they just wanted to get rid of religion.

    Or are you arguing that the warm stuff can't survive without religion?

  19. The point is simply that to lose religion, however desirable that may be in certain respects, is also to lose what has been a source of inspiration and diversity through the ages (Michaelangelo's David and the Sistine Chapel attest to this). This is not to say that atheists are incapable of artistic or cultural achievement. Rather, it's that spirituality provides a world view and a muse without which human experience would be less rich.

  20. What evidence is there that it is not a non sequitir? gddp has the right idea - do atheists want to get rid of all the "warm" stuff? Unless you are reading sources I've not heard of, the answer is no.

    Yes, spirituality has been a source of inspiration but that doesn't mean it is the sole source of inspiration. It hasn't even been the sole source of inspiration for religious people. You can create great art without God - the novels of Camus or Gide stand as testament. Certainly, also, many bohemian or freethinking painters and musicians have been, if not explicitly atheist, quite irreligious (or even anti-religious) which amounts to the same thing in the end.

  21. Camus was extremely preoccupied with God, so that's a bad example.

    You probably need to distinguish between losing religion as an institution or system and losing religion as a sentiment.


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